Reversing Deterrence Failure on the Korean Peninsula

Appeared in Charged Affairs on January 30, 2015

North Korea’s continued pursuit of a long-range, nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting the

U.S. homeland represents a growing threat to the American people. Earlier this month, South

Korean officials reported that North Korea had likely reached a “significant” level of technology

toward miniaturizing a nuclear device to be fitted atop a missile. If completed, the long

anticipated miniaturization effort will provide Pyongyang with a missile-deliverable nuclear

warhead. It will also further demonstrate that the U.S. approach to decrease the possibility of a

North Korean nuclear warhead killing Americans has failed.

In 2010, after North Korea sank a South Korean warship and bombarded a South Korean island,

the U.S. government suspended deal-making efforts designed to convince Pyongyang to

denuclearize and cease further aggression. After two years of remaining steadfast against

providing incentives for North Korean assurances, however, the United States wavered and

signed an agreement in February 2012 to send Pyongyang food in exchange for halting all long-

range ballistic missile launches, nuclear tests and uranium enrichment. Like previous attempts to

use incentives to curb North Korean provocative behavior, this effort failed. In April 2012,

Pyongyang snubbed the international community by attempting a long-range ballistic missile


The White House has followed the same pattern before and after each North Korean ballistic

missile launch and nuclear test. Prior to the April 2009, April 2012 and December 2012 long-

range ballistic missile launches and the May 2009 and February 2013 nuclear tests, Washington

issued warnings, which North Korea’s leadership predictably disregarded. And, after every

provocation, the administration scampered to the United Nations begging for sanctions. Neither

approach has yielded any satisfactory reversal of Pyongyang’s defiant behavior.

The Obama administration’s policy for dealing with North Korea is called “strategic patience”

and emphasizes taking a longer-term perspective to bringing about cooperation with the hermit

regime. But North Korea’s continued pursuit of a long-range, nuclear-armed missile reinforces

the perception that the United States cannot effectively deter Pyongyang. This perception creates

two problems. First, history is replete with instances of Pyongyang taking advantage of the U.S.-

South Korean alliance’s inability, and perhaps unwillingness, to implement sufficient costs.

Second, Seoul may begin pursuing its own deterrence strategy without U.S. participation,

implying that United States’ extended deterrence for its allies is ineffective. South Korea pursued

nuclear programs during the early 1970s in response to the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces

from the peninsula. What makes the Obama administration believe Seoul will react differently

to continued setbacks?

In 2012, South Korea announced plans to deploy a cruise missile capable of precision strikes

against targets anywhere in North Korea. An extended-range, precision-strike capability is the

most practical and promising option available to strengthen the deterrence posture on the Korean

Peninsula. A force of precision-guided cruise missiles would reduce the risk to aircraft if it ever

became necessary to preemptively attack North Korean nuclear and missile launch facilities. A

missile defense system could not manage the potential barrage of hundreds of North Korean

threat missiles on its own, especially if the system must face numerous rocket, cruise and

ballistic missile threats simultaneously. A cruise missile capability also ensures the ability to

punish the North Korean leadership for any provocative behavior by attacking specific targets,

which also decreases the potential for inadvertent escalation. Furthermore, it avoids the need to

extend the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles, which should pacify any perceived threat to

neighboring states. And support of a precision strike conventional capability may help to abate

desires to redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. North Korea has continued to

develop and field ballistic missiles capable of striking any South Korean target, and notoriously

holds Seoul hostage with the threat of an attack. Restricting Seoul’s ability to develop and field a

similar capability does not produce stability, especially when Pyongyang demonstrates a

willingness to conduct deadly attacks without consequence.

The Obama administration should make haste in showing support for South Korea’s bold cruise

missile deployment decision. After North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, then

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted: “We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the

capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region – or on us.” For the past six years, the

Obama administration has stood idly by and squandered its opportunity to deter North Korea’s

nuclear missile development. With deterrence failure quickly approaching, now is the time for

the United States to embrace a new strategy on the Korean peninsula.

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